Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/18/19

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/18 – 1/31/19  

Winter Severity Index to Date? Very Mild
            As of 1/15, the 2018-19 winter severity index is “2” for our region. The index helps gauge the effects of winter weather on deer survival. It’s calculated by adding the number of days with 18 inches or more of snow on the ground to the number of days when the minimum temperatures were 0°F or below. Days when both occur are scored as a “2”. The severity of the winter is then based on the total points accumulated over the time period. A winter index less than 50 is considered mild, 51 to 79 is moderate, 80 to 99 is severe, and over 100 is very severe.
In very severe winters, up to 30% of the deer herd may be lost, dramatically affecting the overall populations. Most of us recall the winter of 2013-14 when the state hit a record 149, sharply impacting the deer herd. Conversely, in very mild winters, deer survival is excellent and reproductive success is typically high.
For the moment then, deer are doing very well, though things may, of course, change.
Historically, severe to very severe winter conditions were commonly reported across the northern forest region from the early 1960s through the late 1980s. Moderate to mild winter conditions have prevailed across the region since 1997 with the exception of the winter of 2013-14. 
To see this chart covering 1959 to 2017, see

White Pines!
            Last week I led a group of tree-lovers into a tiny remnant stand of old-growth white pines near Mercer. The site is an “island” of mostly old-growth white pines surrounded by alder swamp. Some very limited logging within it, but left behind were a number of pines with diameters at breast height over 40”, including the largest at 50”.

50" dbh white pine photo by John Bates

            The best statistics I can find for white pines in Wisconsin says that we have just over 1,000 acres of white pines left that are 150 years and older. Since white pines can live to be 400 years old, 150 years is only their middle age. Remember also that 640 acres is one square mile. So, we have less than two square miles of older white pine left in our entire state, which puts those few that are left in the category of truly rare.
            Why did we cut them so thoroughly? For farmers, the forests were a formidable obstacle to remove from the land before their crops could be sown. For settlers, the wood meant jobs in the bush camps, sawmills, and finishing factories. I’ll let a few quotes tell more of the story:
 “It is much to be regretted that the very superabundance of trees in our state should destroy, in some degree, our veneration for them. They are looked upon as cucumbers of the land; and the question is not how they shall be preserved, but how they shall be destroyed.” (Increase Lapham, The Antiquities of Wisconsin, 1855)
 “Logs less than three feet in diameter are counted ‘under size’ by many lumbermen.” (C.H. Brigham, The Lumber Region of Michigan, 1868)
            “Every new settler upon the fertile prairies means one more added to the vast army of lumber consumers, one more new house to be built, one more barn, one more 40 acres of land to be fenced, one more or perhaps a dozen corn crib needs.” (The Northwestern Lumberman, 1880)         
            “An 1888 log jam on the Menominee River is said to have backed up 500 million board feet.” (William Cronen, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West)

note the people standing on this logjam in the left of the photo

            “The longest log jam in the world took place in 1894 in Little Falls, Minnesota. 7 miles long, half a mile wide, and 60 feet high . . . It was estimated to contain over four billion board feet of lumber.” (Wisconsin Historical Society) 
 “No wood [white pine] has found greater favor or entered more fully into supplying all those wants of man.” (George Hotchkiss,History of the Lumber and Forest Industry of the Northwest, 1898)
            “The desolation of much of the pine area in the 1920’s and early 1930’s is difficult to describe to anyone who did not see it. In many places the entire landscape as far as the eye could see supported not a single tree more than a few inches in diameter. Only the gaunt stumps of the former pines, frequently with their root systems fully exposed as a result of the consumption of the topsoil by fire, remained to indicate that the area was once a forest rather than a perpetual barren.” (John Curtis, Vegetation of Wisconsin, 1959)

photo from Wisconsin Historical Society, in Our Living Ancestors by John Bates
             What we didn’t cut, we burned, often purposely: “Some 42% of the historic wildfires in the Northeast and the Midwest are estimated to have been due to land-clearing operations of settlers.” (C.S. Sargent, 1880, quoted in From Coastal Wilderness to Fruited Plain, Gordon Whitney).
            “Perhaps more good pine timber was burned than ever reached the sawmills.” (Robert Fries, Empire of Pine, 1951)

            So, white pines were felled as fast as they could be found, and the history is remarkable to read – recommended resources include: White Pine: American History and the Tree That Made a Nationby Andrew Vietze; Empire in Pine: The Story of Lumbering in Wisconsinby Robert Fries; Caulked Boots and Cant Hooks: One Man’s Story of Logging the Northby George Corrigan; The White Pine Industry in Minnesota: A History by Agnes Larson; Deep Woods Frontier: A History of Logging in Northern Michigan by Theodore Karamanski; The Great Lakes Forest: An Environmental and Social Historyby Susan Flador, editor; and The Vegetation of Wisconsinby John Curtis.
            Standing among remnant white pines has a certain magic to it. Thoreau wrote that the sound of white pines was “like great harps on which the wind makes music” (from 1/16/1857).
Sigurd Olson wrote in his book Listening Point, “As I stood there, I could hear the soft moaning of the wind in the high dark tops and feel the permanence and agelessness of the primeval. In among those tall swaying trees was more than beauty, more than great boles reaching toward the sky. Silence was there and a sense of finality and benediction that comes only when nature has completed a cycle and reached the crowning achievement of a climax, when all of the inter-relationships of the centuries have come at last to a final glory.”
John Eastman said of the wind in pines, “Pine is the larynx of the wind. No other trees unravel, comb, and disperse moving air so thoroughly. Yet they also seem to concentrate the winds, wringing mosaics of sound from gale weather – voice echoes, cries, sobs, conversations, maniacal calls.  With the help of only slight imagination, they are the receiving stations to which all winds check in, filtering out their loads of B-flats, and F minors, processing auditory debris swept from all corners of the sound-bearing world.”
            Finally, John Curtis noted in his seminal book Vegetation of Wisconsin, “Most of the big pines cut in the heyday of lumbering business were about 400 years old . . . The occasional giants were 7 to 10 feet d.b.h. reported by the surveyors must have been still older. Results from modern studies, therefore, cannot give a true picture of the actual magnitude and majesty of a mature pine forest at its optimum.”
            True enough. My hope is that someday, long from now certainly, we will again have forests with trees of this size and age.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole
            Along with virtually everyone I know, I am excited that Preston Cole has been named as the new Secretary of the DNR. As a member of the Natural Resources Board since 2007 and as a professional forester, he’s bringing much needed long-term experience to an exceedingly challenging job. His pledge to return science-based management to the DNR, as well as a return to far greater transparency, is profoundly welcome. Hopefully we’ll return as much as possible to objective, apolitical decision-making by people trained in the sciences following the mission statement of the DNR: “To protect and enhance our natural resources: our air, land, and water; our wildlife, fish and forests and the ecosystems that sustain all life. To provide a healthy, sustainable environment and a full range of outdoor opportunities.”

            Bev Engstrom photographed a partial albino, or possibly leucistic, black-capped chickadee in Rhinelander. 

photo by Bev Engstrom

            Bruce Bacon in Mercer wondered why his bird seed was going down so much every night and suspected flying squirrels. He set up his trail cam at the feeders and his suspicions were quickly confirmed. We, too, feed flying squirrels every night, and they’re fun to watch.

photo by Bruce Bacon

Lunar Eclipse!
            A total lunar eclipse will occur on 1/20 and last into the early morning of 1/21. The potentially copper-colored moon – a “blood moon” – will be visible throughout North America (a little sunlight gets bent around the edges of the Earth causing the reddish tint).
Since this full moon will appear to be one of the largest of 2019, the eclipse's full moon is called a “super” moon. And given that the January full moon is sometimes referred to as the “wolf moon,” we’ll be having a “super blood wolf moon eclipse.” Say that fast five times.
The moon won’t disappear, but becomes 10,000 or so times dimmer than usual.
The eclipse begins at 9:33 Minocqua and reaches total eclipse at 10:41, which then lasts for 62 minutes until it begins to fade. Look for stars during the eclipse that ordinarily would be washed out by the bright light of the full moon!

Celestial Events
            On 1/22, look before dawn for Venus about 2 degrees above the waning gibbous moon. By 1/27 we’ll be up to 9 ½ hours of daylight – our days will soon be growing longer by 3 minutes per day. On 1/29, look before dawn for Jupiter 3 degrees below the crescent moon. 

Thought for the Week
            “I’ve often thought of the forest as a living cathedral, but this might diminish what it truly is.” – Richard Nelson

Sunday, January 6, 2019

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/4/19

A Northwoods Almanac for 1/4 – 1/17/19  

Sightings: Varied Thrush, Red-winged Blackbird, Minocqua Christmas Bird Count
Gayle Derwinski and Dave Osborn in Boulder Junction have a rare varied thrush visiting their bird feeders. Varied thrushes breed from Alaska to California in forests "where spruce trees and alders and crowding ferns contend for a footing, and where a dank mist drenches the whole with a fructifying moisture," so wrote W. L. Dawson in 1923 in The Birds of California. I’m not sure what “fructifying moisture” is, but when Mary and I did an artist-in-residence in the Andrews Forest in Oregon, perhaps the most common bird we saw there was the varied thrush, and Andrews Forest gets 84 inches of rain annually and as much as 14 feet of snow in winter. It’s a very wet place – perhaps even fructifying!  

photo  by Gayle Derwinski

They breed most commonly in mature and old-growth forests, and that’s where we’ve seen them – from coastal redwoods to western hemlocks. Most varied thrushes winter along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to southern California, but during irruption years, which occur every 2 to 5 years, they may be seen across the United States and Canada in winter. 
We’ve got a much more mundane bird, but still unusual, under our feeders – a red-winged blackbird. It appeared on 12/26 and continues as of 1/1. Red-wings are perhaps the most abundant bird in North America, but typically winter only as far north as the southern counties of our state, and then continue as far south as Central America. What this fellow is doing under our feeders is perplexing, since red-wings are primarily ground feeders and ordinarily the Northwoods has too much snow for such behavior. But he seems to be doing fine on a diet of sunflower seeds, so we’ll see what transpires.
            The Minocqua Christmas Bird Count took place on 12/20 and tallied 24 species, a good number given the foggy and misty conditions we encountered that morning. Just to illustrate the wintering bird difference between northern Wisconsin counties like ours that experience a true winter and southern counties that may see snow but only briefly, the Madison Christmas Count tallied 94 species and 38,933 individual birds – they had more cardinals (665) than we had total birds (595) on our Manitowish Waters Count. On the other hand, they also had more starlings (2,369) and house sparrows (2,509) than we had total birds, so their diversity comes with some costs. 
We’re doing a birding trip to southeastern Arizona in March, and our guide there said they counted 140 species on their Christmas Count! Of course, it was 65° there, while we had 13° here, and the birds very well know the difference.
            Finally, Joe Heitz photographed bear tracks on 12/19 while walking along the edge of Irving Lake. November was colder than average, but December has proven to be much warmer than average. While the bear could simply have been disturbed from his/her den, it may also have been feeling the warmth.

photo by Joe Heitz

Proof of Wolves Fishing
Researchers in Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park have documented for the first time wolves hunting freshwater fish as a seasonal food source, and there’s video to prove it! 
In April of 2017, one of the researchers quietly followed the signal from a collared wolf to a creek, and then hid in some shrubs to watch the wolf’s behaviors. For the next 15 minutes or so, he watched the wolf meander back and forth around the creek, periodically running into the creek, splashing around, and looking like it was eating something. After the wolf departed, he found fish scales and blood and guts all over the edges of the creek, as well as wolf scats full of fish scales and fish remains.The wolf had been hunting fish — spawning suckers — in the creek.
A year later, the researchers set up trail cameras at the creek and caught footage of the wolves fishing at night.Even more interesting, the video also captured wolves catching fish and not eating them right away, instead, storing them on the bank of the creek while they fished some more.
Wolves in coastal habitats in British Columbia and Alaska eat spawning salmon, but this is the first time wolves hunting freshwater fish have been directly observed.
The researchers have also learned a variety of other things about wolves, one of which is that wolves eat a lot of beavers. In fact, they found that beavers can constitute up to 42 percent of a pack's diet from April until October. Their preliminary data shows that, on average, one wolf in Voyageurs Park kills about six to eight beavers per year. But since individual wolves opportunistically vary their diet depending on what’s available, they found that one wolf didn’t eat any beavers at all, but one other wolf had eaten 28 beavers in one year. 
Read more at:

Moose Study 
A multi-year New Hampshire study begun in 2014 is ongoing to learn more about threats facing the moose population there. Moose aren’t on the verge of disappearing from New Hampshire, but they are declining, and they want to know why. 
            Researchers from the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department partnered with the University of New Hampshire to collar 45 moose cows and calves each year from 2014-2017, and 50 in 2018 (230 total). They then compared mortality and productivity from a New Hampshire study conducted in 2001-2006, versus the work done from 2014-2018. What they found was that winter ticks are causing increasingly negative impacts to adult cow productivity. Moose attempt to remove ticks by scratching, licking, and rubbing, often removing their hair at the same time, which can lead to secondary infections and hypothermia. Individual moose can carry 10,000 to 120,000 ticks. The moose that they found dead had an average of 47,000 on them.

photo by Dan Bergeron

They further noted, “In addition, as our winters become consistently shorter, more ticks are surviving and calf mortality is remaining high. We are also seeing clear evidence that tick loads are directly correlated with both moose density and shorter winters.” Today, winter in most portions of New Hampshire is three weeks shorter than it was 30 years ago. Shorter winters are allowing parasites to thrive that were formerly killed by longer periods of winter weather.
Interestingly, they also found that “as our winters continue to shorten, it may be best for moose if they are held at much lower densities. Based on our own work, we know that ticks have far less impact when moose densities are 0.25/square mile or less.”  
The researchers remind us that “the most important thing to remember is that moose are a northern species. They evolved in ways that allow them to live in cold climates, climates that normally kill ticks. As our weather changes and our winters continue to shorten, there is a whole host of parasites and diseases normally associated with southern climates that will be able to survive here. Our changing climate is fundamentally changing the environment’s ability to support many of our northern species, be they flora or fauna. If we want our northern species to remain here we must act now to halt and reverse the impacts of climate change.”

Snowy Owl Study
In a study just published in the International Journal of Avian Scienceentitled “Age composition of winter irruptive Snowy Owls in North America(Santonja et al. 2019),” the researchers found that “large winter irruptions at temperate latitudes are not the result of adults massively leaving the Arctic in search of food after a breeding failure but are more likely to be a consequence of good reproductive conditions in the Arctic that create a large pool of winter migrants.”
For many years, the accepted explanation for why snowy owls would appear in large numbers during a given winter was that starvation was driving them south. It turns out to be quite the opposite – an excellent breeding year sends the numerous juvenile snowy owls well south in search of wintering territory. There apparently isn’t enough wintering territory further north to support both adult owls and the juveniles.

Celestial Events
            The new moon occurs on 1/5. The sun rises one minute earlier on 1/8, the first time since 6/11/18. Our day length is growing two minutes longer as of 1/9.
            The year’s coldest days, on average, occur between 1/6 and 1/26, with a high of 21°F. 
The year’s average coldest low temperatures occur between 1/6 and 1/29 at 3°F. 
            After dusk on 1/12, look for Mars 5 degrees north of the waxing crescent moon.
            And hey, things are looking brighter – we receive over 9 hours of daylight on 1/13!
Thought for the Week
We think of wind as the voice of winter, the wind and the moan of the trees and the swish of sleet and snow. But the ultimate voice, the timeless voice of winter, is the boom of the ice, and is one of the coldest voices there is . . . Ice, which split the mountains, carved the valleys, leveled the hills, must proclaim its strength. The ice rends itself in a primalconvulsion. The ice booms.”   Hal Borland, Twelve Moons of the Year

Friday, December 21, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac 12/21/18

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/21/18 – 1/3/19  

Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird Count
            On 12/15, eleven intrepid birders fanned out in the Manitowish Waters area to count birds as part of the Audubon Christmas Bird Count. The morning began sunny and cold at 12°, but warmed to 40° by 11 a.m. It may have been the most comfortable Christmas bird count of any of the 25 we’ve done prior to this! 
            It may also have been the quietest.
            Every participant commented on how few birds they’d seen or heard that morning. Our total number of individual birds were well below our average. Still, we somehow came up with 28 species, which is above our average of 25! 
            Quite unusual were sightings of a wood duck, a hooded merganser, and a red-breasted merganser – waterfowl are typically long gone by the time we do our count. 
Conspicuous by their absence were birds like gray jay, bohemian waxwing, purple finch, both crossbills, and all raptors other than eagles. More unusual yet were the very low numbers of common winter visitors like pine siskins, common redpolls, pine grosbeaks, and American goldfinches.
            Their relative paucity leads me to wonder about our conifer cone crop. I see very few cones on white pines, eastern hemlocks, balsam firs, and both spruces, so perhaps our dinner table is a bit bare for them. Time will tell, of course. They may simply be biding their time until they’ve run out of food further north and are forced to forage come south and visit our feeders. 

Sightings: Weasel, Pileated Woodpecker, Basswood Seeds 
            Bob Collins dropped off a photo of a weasel chasing a gray squirrel around a tree on his property in Hazelhurst. While ermine are exceptionally quick and ferocious hunters, I wonder about their ability to catch a squirrel up in the trees. Squirrels are circus acrobats, the flying Wallendas of the rodent world, racing around in the branches, performing amazing leaps between trees, and leaping from trees to the ground. Can a weasel match their agility? I don’t know, but every article describing their diet includes squirrels, so perhaps they can win an arboreal chase. Their normal bill-of-fare, however, is more grounded and includes chipmunks, ground squirrels, insects, small birds, frogs and snakes. 

photo by Bob Collins

            Bev Engstrom sent several superb photos of a pileated woodpecker in flight amply illustrating their marvelous size. Pileateds are the largest commonly seen woodpecker in North America and the sixth largest in the world. Roughly crow-sized, they’re 16 to 19 inches long, with a wing-span of 26 to 30 inches, and an average weight of 11 ounces.

photo by Bev Engstrom

photo by Bev Engstrom

Pileateds play a crucial role in forest ecosystems by excavating large nesting and foraging cavities that are subsequently used by a diverse array of birds and mammals, particularly secondary cavity users. These are the cavity nesters who are unable to excavate their own cavities, but utilize natural cavities or those already created by primary excavators like pileated, flickers, red-headed woodpeckers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Secondary cavity users include bird species like wood duck, bufflehead, common merganser, common goldeneye, American kestrel, screech owl, saw-whet owl, tree swallow, red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatch, black-capped chickadee, and mammals like American marten. 
Pileateds also are important in helping control some forest beetle populations because their diet consists primarily of wood-dwelling ants like carpenter ants and beetle larvae.
I’m told some folks still shoot them, thinking they’re harming a tree. Far from it, they’re performing surgery! They’re good guys, deserving of our admiration and protection.
Lastly, the seed-du-jour visible everywhere on ski trails this winter has been basswood. The pea-sized seeds hang on a stem from a narrow parachute-like structure – I think they look like little hang gliders. Basswoods, like all trees, are cyclical in their production of seeds, and 2018 looks like the year they chose to be celebratory.

Celestial Events – Days Now Growing Longer
Today, 12/21, marks the winter solstice. The sun is now its furthest south of the equator, providing us with only 8 hours and 39 minutes of day length. Or if you prefer, tonight we’ll have 15 hours and 21 minutes of dark. To mark the sun’s passage back north, try fixing a bit of tape to your window on which you’ve written the date. 
The full moon – the Cold/Long Night/Popping Trees Moon – occurs on 12/22. This is the year’s northernmost full moon rise and the year’s highest altitude in the sky for a full moon.
            The 22ndis also the peak Ursid meteor shower, a modest affair offering an average of 10 meteors per hour. Look predawn for the best show, though the light from the full moon will likely wash out most viewing. 
Christmas day, 12/25, gives the gift of our first day growing longer since June 20 – hooray!
12/27 to 1/7 mark the year’s latest sunrises. Every morning look at 7:40 for the first rays of the sun. These sunrises are 3 hours and 32 minutes later than our earliest sunrises which occur in mid-June at 4:08 (5:08 Daylight Savings Time).
As of 12/30, our days begin growing longer by 1 minute/day – we’re starting to cook now!
            On New Years’ Day, 1/1, we’ll be up to 8 hours and 45 minutes of daylight, or 36% daylight! Look before dawn for Venus just 1.3° south of the waning crescent Moon.
            On 1/2, the Earth will be at perihelion, its closest orbital point to the Sun in 2019, a mere 91.4 million miles away. This proves that the distance between the sun and the earth has very little to do with the warmth on any given day. It’s all about the tilt of the Earth, not the distance to the sun. At perihelion, we’re 3.1 million miles (3.4%) closer than during aphelion, our furthest away point, which will occur this year on July 4.
Look for the peak Quadrantid meteor shower on 1/3. At 40 meteors per hour, this might be worth braving the cold for. Look also before dawn for Jupiter about 3° south of the waning sliver of moon.

Future DEET Alternative?
Yes, it’s winter and mosquito larvae are all under water, but it’s never a bad time to talk about natural controls. So, I’ve just learned that compounds derived from coconut oil have been found to repel some insects better than DEET, at least according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin published in September in the journal Scientific Reports. The study found that fatty acids derived from coconut oil had long-lasting insect-repelling properties against flies, ticks, bed bugs and mosquitoes. Note that the compounds extracted from coconut oil – notthe oil itself – were found as an effective repellent (so, don’t go slathering yourself with coconut oil this spring).
The USDA release says the coconut oil compounds out-performed DEET at repelling stable flies, and repelled bed bugs and ticks for two weeks, as compared with DEET's three days of effectiveness. However, the study notes that a much greater concentration of coconut oil acids are required to effectively repel mosquitoes as compared with DEET. Ah, well.

Solutions Needed!
            Most social media feeds are filled with people complaining about various political problems without even attempting to discuss, or offer, solutions. I’m often guilty of that when discussing climate change, even though I know the key to fixing problems is offeringnew approaches and ideas, or examples of proven solutions. So, what can be done to alter the accelerating trajectory of climate change? Here are ten of the best ideas I’ve found, and all can be done without significant sacrifice:
·      Expand renewable energies dramatically and slash our use ofcoal and oil as far as we can. 
·      Maximize vehicle fuel efficiency and the heating and cooling efficiency of all buildings.
·      Place limits on the amounts of carbon that industries are allowed to emit. 
·      Invest heavily in existing/developing efficient energy technologies and industries.
·      Plant trees and dramatically reduce tropical deforestation. 
·      Eat lower on the food chain and purchase all goods from sustainable sources - know what and from whom we’re buying.
·      Reduce our consumption and waste of virtually everything.
·      Educate all girls everywhere and reduce the world’s population through family planning.
·     Read. Become well-versed in the issues. Trust the sciences. 
·      Support national and international climate change policies. Work for immediate change.
Kathleen Dean Moore writes: “People ask me, What can one person do? My answer is always: stop being one person. Join up with other people, brainstorm together—what are our skillsets, what are our challenges? Climate change can be such a lonely sorrow. No one talks about it, and you think no one is worried about it, but when you find your group, you’re really empowered . . . This is going to have to be systematic change and that takes community organizing and public action.”
Mary Oliver writes, “The world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. ‘Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?’” 
Far be it from me to ever offer any change to a Mary Oliver quote, but I’d substitute “commitment” for “comment.” And climate change is where we need commitments.

Thought for the Week
Terry Tempest Williamswrites, “The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.”Merry Christmas!All blessings on your coming New Year.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/7/18

A Northwoods Almanac for 12/7-20, 2018 

Sightings: Northern Shrike, Barred Owl, Spruce Grouse, Red-bellied Woodpecker
We had our first northern shrike of the year visit our feeders on 11/27. Mary and I watched it for five minutes as it fluttered slowly up and down from tree to tree, an unusual behavior for a lightning-fast bird that predates on smaller songbirds. We speculated that it was trying to flush songbirds from dense vegetation where they might have been concealed. It was unsuccessful in the time we watched, and we haven’t seen it since. Ryan Brady photographed a northern shrike capturing a white-breasted nuthatch at one of his backyard feeders in Washburn – see the photo.

photo by Ryan Brady

Mark Pflieger recently hung a deer carcass in his yard near McNaughton, and that evening a barred owl came in and dined on it for two and a half hours. Mark noted that it “looked like it was starving,” which is a likely scenario given that barred owls are not known to feed on carrion. Barreds are a true generalist predator, consuming a variety of birds up to the size of grouse and small mammals up to the size of rabbits, while during the summer, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates are also taken. In the winter, however, they feed mostly on small mammals like rodents and squirrels.

photo by Bev Engstrom

John Heusinkveld reported seeing four spruce grouse on private land in the town of Newbold, which may be the most southern record in Wisconsin for a sighting of spruce grouse. He noted “at one point, we walked directly underneath them at maybe 12 feet. This was the best photo, but we also got video of the male eating buds off a jackpine . . . I’ve stomped the Northwoods for 17 years always wanting to see just one. He was fat, proud, magnificent and unconcerned. They all were. The two apparent juveniles seemed to be males by plumage, but inconclusive. We watched them for 15 minutes with 10x40 binocs. So, it was my Christmas ‘And a Spruce Grouse in a Jack Pine,’ to the tune of ‘A Partridge in a Pear Tree.’ It felt like hope in this crazy age.”

Chuck Dutton on the north end of Squaw lake in Lac du Flambeau reported having had a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers feeding in his yard since October. 

Christmas Bird Counts
The 26thannual Manitowish Waters Christmas Bird Count (CBC) takes place on Saturday, 12/15, and less than a week later, the Minocqua CBC, sponsored by the North Lakeland Discovery Center Bird Club, takes place on Thursday, 12/20.  
For the Manitowish Waters Count, if you live within a 7.5 mile radius of the intersection of Hwy 51 and Cty. W, you can count birds in your own yard and from your bird feeders, and then report the results. For the Minocqua Count, if you live within a 7.5 mile radius of the intersection of Hwy 51 and Hwy 70 West, you can likewise count birds in your own yard and report the results. If you have friends or family who live within these areas, please also encourage them to count birds in their yard and report their results to us.  
If you’d rather not count but would be willing to have us come to your yard some time during the day to count your birds, let us know. We’ve learned a long time ago that winter birds know where the best restaurants are, and that’s folks’ backyard feeders.
The  CBC is a census of birds in the Western Hemisphere, performed annually by volunteer birdwatchers and administered by the National Audubon Society. This will be the 119thyear of Christmas bird counts, making it the longest running citizen science survey in the world.
The data helps to provide an understanding of bird population trends across North America in early winter, and provides an enjoyable social experience – tens of thousands of birdwatchers participate in this event each year.
More than 100 Christmas bird counts take place in Wisconsin. If you’re interested in participating either as a field counter or by counting birds at your feeder, please contact Donna Roche ( for the Minocqua count or contact me ( the Manitowish Waters count. 

Snowy Owl Status
As of November 26, Ryan Brady, Bird monitoring coordinator for the WI Bird Conservation Initiative,noted that “an estimated 26 snowy owls have been reported from 14 Wisconsin counties. 
“The total of 26 owls is well short of the 97 seen by this date during last year’s big irruption but greater than the 7 seen by now in 2016-17, which was a non-irruption year. While it’s a little early to know exactly how things will unfold by mid-winter, one thing is already clear – the proportion of juvenile birds hatched last summer is much lower this year than recent years past. This is consistent with reports from the Arctic that suggested a summer of low lemming numbers and poor reproductive success for snowy owls.”

Monarch Butterfly Status
            I tried this week to find the latest information on the status of monarch butterflies, but I was only able to find information up through the fall migration. Still, it was very encouraging. Based on activity in the monarchs’ primary Midwestern breeding grounds, Monarch Watch founder and expert Chip Taylor predicted in September that “the migration should be the strongest since 2008.” He wrote that “the sequence of events and temperatures that determine how the monarch population grows through the season has been better this year than for any year since 2001 . . . but there is still a big unknown. Will the fall conditions favor survival during the migration? Most of the migration through Texas occurs in October so should sufficient rains occur, nectar scarcity would not be an issue. Monarchs then still have to pass through northern Mexico, a traverse of another 600 miles or more depending on the routes taken.” 
Apparently, mortality during migration may have increased in recent years for monarchs, potentially contributing to the declines in their overwintering population. For example, the abundance of monarchs was one of the highest in decades in the Northeast during the 2017 breeding season, but in the subsequent winter, the population was well below historic levels in Mexico, likely linked to the fact the southern autumn of 2017 was the hottest in over 100 years. 
            So, even though 2018 was a great year for monarch reproductive success, the jury is still out on their migratory success.

Fourth National Climate Assessment
Volume II of the Fourth National Climate Assessment was released on 11/23 by the United States Global Change Research Program.President George H.W. Bush signed the Global Change Research Act into law on November 16, 1990, with a mandate to understand and respond to global change, including the cumulative effects of human activities and natural processes on the environment.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), one of thirteen federal agencies comprising the USGCRP team, was the administrative lead agency. The report was produced with the assistance of 1,000 people, including 300 leading scientists, roughly half from outside the government. For the 1,500-page report, go to

Copper Bullets
Several readers noted that they had switched from lead bullets to copper bullets based on what I had written in my last column. Randy and Debbie Augustinak in Land O’ Lakes noted that “initial attempts to locate all-copper bullets locally were futile (i.e. Fleet Farm & others), but we were eventually able to order them online from Cabelas. We subsequently learned that the national chains carry these products because non-lead shot is mandated in California.”
I’m very surprised to learn that copper bullets aren’t available locally – if true, consider contacting your local supplier and requesting they stock copper ammo.

Winter Solstice
Cold temperatures are only one element in the difficulty of living out a northern winter – the long nights are the other. For many of us, the coming of the winter solstice is truly a time for celebration given that in the Northern Hemisphere, the December solstice marks the turning point for the return of light. 
The 2018 December solstice takes place on Friday, December 21 at 4:23 p.m. CST, marking our shortest day – 8 hours and 39 minutes. 
But, in fact, our earliest sunsets occur at 4:14 p.m. from 12/5 to 12/14.So, why doesn’t the earliest sunset come on the shortest day? Here’s the answer from 
“The key to understanding the earliest sunset is not to focus on the time of sunset or sunrise. The key is to focus on what is called true solar noon – the time of day that the sun reaches its highest point, in its journey across your sky. In early December, true solar noon comes nearly 10 minutes earlier by the clock than it does at the solstice. With true noon coming later on the solstice, so will the sunrise and sunset times.
“It’s this discrepancy between clock time and sun time that causes the Northern Hemisphere’s earliest sunset and the Southern Hemisphere’s earliest sunrise to precede the December solstice.” Got that?

Celestial Events
            The new moon occurs tonight, 12/7. 
The peak Geminid meteor shower takes place on the night of 12/13 through the predawn of 12/14. This is the year’s best meteor shower, averaging 50 to 100 meteors per hour.

Thought for the Week
            “What makes a place special is the way it buries itself inside the heart, not whether it's flat or rugged, rich or austere, wet or arid, gentle or harsh, warm or cold, wild or tame.” Richard Nelson